How do I export onions to Malaysia

Plastic waste in Southeast AsiaThe toxic consequences of the German garbage export

We are not the world's rubbish dump: Malaysia's former Environment Minister made a name for herself with this slogan. Yeo Bee Yin has taken up the fight against the illegal import of plastic waste - undeclared or non-recyclable waste from the West that is often smuggled into the country by unlicensed traders.

"First we have to stop the intrusion, that is, strike at the ports. And second, if the garbage has already made it into the country, we will close the illegal incinerators again and again and then we'll see who is toughest."

Yeo Bee Yin lost her post in February after a government reshuffle, but HS 3915 is in the world. HS 3915 is the new Malaysian action plan against the illegal import of plastic waste. So that Malaysia is not the rubbish dump of the whole world, as the former minister thinks - and that there are no more scenes like this one: Pulau Indah - beautiful island. Pulau Indah is the name of the place where Heng Kah Chun from Greenpeace in Malaysia says: "Beautiful island - it's ironic, because this place is no longer beautiful at all."

(dpa / Imaginechina / Stringer) Garbage export should be made more difficult
Year after year, European countries export hundreds of thousands of tons of mixed plastic waste, mainly to Asia. There, the waste pollutes areas and bodies of water. Many states are in favor of stronger regulation.

During the shooting of ARD television last year, he showed the mountains of rubbish, illegal landfills where plastic waste is simply disposed of: "Greenpeace Malaysia did some research and we found a lot of plastic waste from high-income countries such as Germany, the USA, Great Britain, New Zealand and so on. The global system doesn't work because not all plastic waste can be recycled. "

Greenpeace: Only nine percent of plastic waste is recycled

The environmental organization estimates that only nine percent of plastic waste worldwide is recycled, some is incinerated and most of it ends up in nature, in the oceans or in illegal landfills like here.

"Yes, this is plastic waste from Germany, the label is in German. I think it shows onions. And here is the recycling symbol. I don't think German consumers know where their waste ends up."

Greenpeace recently published a report entitled "The Recycling Myth 2.0" on the toxic after-effects of imported plastic waste in Malaysia. Heavy metals and toxic chemicals can be found in soil and water samples around illegal landfills - where the waste from the West was simply dumped. The villagers in Malaysia are exposed to the residues, lead and cadmium in the earth, phosphorus, nickel and antimony in the rivers.

A container full of plastic waste from Australia in the port of Port Klang, Malaysia (dpa-Bildfunk / AP / Vincent Thian)

Plastic waste from the West went elsewhere for a long time: "China was the world's rubbish dump for a long time," explains Heng Kah Chun from Greenpeace Malaysia, the development since 2018: "After China imposed an import ban on rubbish, Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand are the next rubbish dump for all exporting countries. A large part of this rubbish is not recyclable at all. "

Strong increase in garbage exports to Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, many companies were initially willing to accept the garbage. From 2016 to 2018, plastic imports to Malaysia tripled to more than 870,000 tons annually. Even if many companies are not able to recycle plastic waste, as it is actually officially intended, says Pavel Cech. He is the manager of an Australian factory, one of the few in Malaysia that really recycles plastic.

"Processors in the west pay recipients in Asia to accept this material. And then those recipients face a dilemma: what do they do with it?" This is how Cech describes the situation last year when he visited ARD television.

"They want to keep the money and they have to get rid of the garbage. So they either collect it in big piles or throw it in the river or bury it."

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Often enough, the garbage is simply burned, as Lydia Ong says. The pensioner from the city of Sungai Petani campaigns against this forbidden practice on behalf of the local residents and shows a factory to ARD television.

"At night they burn the plastic that is supposed to be recycled here. The wall has already turned completely black. They used to process plastic pipes here, now illegally imported rubbish comes here from the recycling factory."

The factory she is currently standing in front of has been closed by the authorities, like many others, says Lydia Ong, but the operators don't care, they just keep going. Corruption plays a role here.

Pictures of Lydia Ong's colleagues show how plastic waste is simply burned in the great outdoors. The poisonous thick smoke drifts over the city. Doctors from nearby hospitals report that respiratory diseases have increased by 20 percent.

The Malaysian authorities have already closed more than 200 plastic recycling factories for violating regulations. Plastic imports have been severely restricted.

Lots of rubbish returns from Malaysia

After the plastic flood of 2018 with almost 900,000 tons, it was just under 150,000 tons last year - officially. Nevertheless, customs repeatedly find containers full of rubbish during their random checks in the ports. 110 containers full of toxic residues from steelmaking have just turned up; they were simply deposited in a port and are now to be sent back to their country of origin, Romania. It is one of around 30 rubbish returns this year.

Yeo Bee Yin, then Minister of the Environment at the time, announced in January: "We have sent back 150 containers of plastic waste; there are 110 more that are being sent back via three Malaysian ports."

The majority came from France, Great Britain and the USA. The export of garbage from the west to the poorer south merely shifts a problem - it is not a solution. Especially since the recipient countries have enough of their own garbage: According to a McKinsey report, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the largest producers of plastic waste because of their rapidly growing economic power. And Indonesia is the second largest polluter of plastic after China.

Street children collect rubbish on a garbage dump in Malaysia (imago images / HBLnetwork)

Straws, plastic bags, disposable bottles, mugs, beverage bags: the more prosperity there is, the more plastic waste is initially produced. At the same time, there is hardly any recycling and no comprehensive waste disposal, so that the waste ends up in the countryside, in the rivers, in the sea. Malaysia has just drawn up an action plan against single-use plastic that will eliminate first plastic bags and then all other single-use packaging by 2030. If the garbage from the west could at least still be used as a raw material. But Pavel Cech, managing director of the Australian recycling company, has learned the opposite: dirty, multi-layered, unusable material prevails.

"If anyone tells a German taxpayer or waste producer that the material that is sent to Asia is perfectly reusable, then that is often a lie. Very often the material that is sent from West to East is not recyclable. And exactly that's why it's been sent here. Because if it were recyclable in the West, it would have been reused by now. "

Exports are only checked in cases of suspicion

Reuse, recycling - these are keywords that play an important role when it comes to plastic waste in Germany. Because officially only plastic waste that has been cleaned and pre-sorted and thus reusable may be exported. Polyethylene film, for example, is fine, but a mix of half-full yoghurt pots and shampoo bottles is not.

The exports are only checked in suspicious cases, says the General Customs Directorate in Bonn. This is probably why non-recyclable plastic waste ends up in Southeast Asia again and again.

"I emphatically reject the fact that the landfills that exist in Asia are the result of export transactions from Germany or the USA". retorts the former CDU politician Peter Kurth. He is the executive president of the Federal Association of the German Waste Management Industry - the companies that dispose of and recycle waste.

"Please assume that plastic production in Asia is many times higher and larger than in our country. The plastic waste in these countries is also many times higher than the plastic waste in our country."

That's basically true, after all, Asia is home to more than half of the world's population. According to a report by the World Bank, around a third of the world's waste comes from industrialized countries such as the USA or Germany, although only 16 percent of the world's population live here.

400,000 tons go to Southeast Asia every year

According to the latest figures from the Federal Environment Agency, almost 400,000 tons of plastic waste were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia last year. Because international trade in these materials is a prerequisite for a functioning circular economy, according to association president Peter Kurth:

"A plastics company in Vietnam, in India, in Indonesia can buy plastic waste in Germany. There are trading activities for this, there are brokers, there are markets. Because plastic waste is sometimes cheaper than the original material."

Recycling at a landfill in Hanover (picture alliance / dpa / Julian Stratenschulte)

The original material for plastic is oil. When the price of oil is high, it may be worthwhile for companies in Asia to buy waste plastic instead of oil. They use this to create new products.

This is also a profitable business model for German waste disposal companies: "Because waste in Germany can only be disposed of at a certain cost. And it can be cheaper to export the relevant materials. Then it makes economic sense."

Plastic waste has become a global commodity, much like petroleum or aluminum. And the supply chain often begins in Germany.

Manfred Santen from Greenpeace Germany: "Who exactly the dealers are and how exactly the business works is still a bit in the dark. Of course, nobody wants to give out more detailed information because it is actually a kind of criminal act. Always when the waste cannot be recycled. "

International recycling market

It is not possible to precisely quantify how high the non-recyclable portion of the waste exported is. Nevertheless: The SPD-led Federal Environment Ministry does not see something fundamentally bad in plastic waste export: "Of course plastic is exported, because we have a market for recycling that is international."

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Says spokesman Christopher Stolzenberg. Since the beginning of last year, the German Packaging Act has stipulated that more than half of all plastic packaging placed on the market must be recycled. From 2022 it should then be 63 percent.

In order to achieve the targeted recycling quotas, the Ministry of the Environment naturally relies on export and recycling abroad: "This is not plastic waste that is somehow taken to a landfill there, but the raw materials for plastic recycling. That is stipulated in the waste shipment law, what also sets very clear guidelines for the circumstances under which plastic waste may be transported abroad for recycling. "

The control over this is incumbent on the federal states and the customs. Waste is exported through authorized customs offices, for example in the ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven, according to the General Customs Directorate in Bonn. You check the documents, if you suspect you contact the responsible state authorities. It is also not known whether an illegal garbage dealer was ever caught, according to customs.

When it comes to the problem of illegal exports, Christopher Stolzenberg from the Ministry of the Environment prefers to refer to the buyer side: "Malaysia also has national law that regulates the import of plastic. that any garbage is brought away here and buried somewhere. Rather, it is more because the companies on site are not working properly. "

Green dot and yellow bin: only one percent is exported (dpa / Marcus Brandt)

Since China closed its borders to plastic waste in early 2018, exports from Germany to Southeast Asia have almost halved. Greenpeace calls for the export of garbage to be banned in principle.

Manfred Santen: "There are enough plants in Germany that can recycle plastic. And recently we have seen more and more often that these plants are underutilized. That is simply because waste is shipped because it is cheaper."

"We say very clearly that the more waste is recycled in Europe, the less plastic waste is exported," adds Mara Hancker, spokeswoman for the Plastic Packaging Industry Association. So she represents the manufacturers of plastic packaging such as PET bottles. They could live well with an increasing recycling rate, after all, they would then not have to question their frequently criticized business model - namely plastic products that are only used once and then thrown away.

(Karlheinz Schindler / dpa-Zentralbild) West garbage export to the GDR: dirt against foreign exchange
For decades, sometimes toxic rubbish was exported from the West to the GDR. When there was protest against the practice, the Stasi sensed anti-subversive agitation. Foreign exchange was more important to the socialist leadership than the environment and health.

The industrial association also proposes supporting the Southeast Asian countries in setting up a modern waste management system. Based on the model of the dual system and the yellow bin in Germany. Because anyone who markets packaging in this country has to obtain a license from the Green Dot, for example, and pay fees.

The system works well, assures Mara Hancker: "In fact - and there is such a modern fairy tale, such a myth - contrary to the assumptions, no packaging from the yellow sack or the yellow bin is exported to Asia."

According to the Central Packaging Register, which coordinates the collection companies for the yellow sack, less than one percent of the garbage from the yellow sack ends up outside the EU. This is also confirmed by the Federal Environment Agency.

When in doubt, packaging manufacturers prefer to produce from scratch

Waste disposal is a sovereign task of the municipalities in Germany. Above all, they bring residual waste to municipal waste incineration plants. Packaging waste, glass and paper are taken care of by private companies that also take care of recycling. However, the disposal companies have difficulties selling the plastic they have recycled to the packaging manufacturers.

Because if in doubt, they prefer to produce from scratch, because that's cheaper. Peter Kurth, head of the Federal Association of the German Waste Management Industry: "If you place recycling materials on the market, you have to be able to express the costs of collection, infrastructure, processing and logistics in the price. We don't have any for recycling materials in the plastics sector Market. And that's the big problem. "

Plastic waste should cost in the EU. This is intended to provide an incentive for recycling (picture alliance / dpa / Wolfram Steinberg)

The federal association is therefore calling for a statutory quota of recycled plastic, so-called recyclates, in new plastic products. Then the plastic manufacturers would be obliged to buy up recycled plastic. A proposal that is not only met with approval.

In the case of food packaging, the use of recyclate is rather tricky because of regulations on hygiene and toxicity, says the spokeswoman for the plastic packaging industry association, Mara Hancker:

"But of course we can again significantly expand the use of recycled materials in the cosmetics and household sectors.Further options for increasing the use of recycled plastics are financial incentives for the use of recyclates or their inclusion in CO2 emissions trading. "

That could at least reduce the amount of waste.

EU is planning a plastic levy

In addition, a new plastic tax is being discussed for the EU's Corona reconstruction fund. According to Christopher Stolzenberg from the Federal Environment Ministry, from 2021 the member states should pay 80 cents to Brussels for every kilo of plastic waste that has not been recycled: "This recycling can take place in your own country, in the European Union, but it can also take place in any other country take place, provided that the applicable law is complied with during export. "

If it is irrelevant where it is recycled, increasing recyclate quotas could further fuel waste exports to Asia, for example.

From the point of view of experts, the tightening of the Basel Convention from January 2021 is more promising: The convention regulates the control and export of cross-border, hazardous waste and its disposal. In future, the exporting country will have to inform the importing country of the type of waste it is shipping.

Manfred Santen from Greenpeace: "From our point of view, this is a great step forward. The importing country, such as Indonesia, then has the opportunity to say: No, I don't want that stuff, you can keep it with you and process it there . "

Santen believes that there could still be enough leeway for illegal garbage dealers. After all, a law only becomes effective if it is rigorously monitored.